NATO, UN chief seek to tamp down dispute between Turkey, Greece in Mediterranean

Despite a denial from Greece, the chief of NATO said Friday that Greece and Turkey have started technical discussions aimed at reducing the risk of conflict or accidents amid military tensions between the allies over offshore energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.

Potential for energy reserves in the sea has sparked territorial dispute between the 2 nations

In this photo provided on Aug. 31 by the Greek Defence Ministry, warships from Greece, Italy, Cyprus and France participate in a joint military exercise south of Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. (Greek Defence Ministry via The Associated Press)

Despite a denial from Greece, the chief of NATO said Friday that Greece and Turkey have started technical discussions aimed at reducing the risk of conflict or accidents amid military tensions between the allies over offshore energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.

No agreement has been reached from the military-level talks, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Greece's foreign minister, meanwhile, headed to New York to discuss the regional dispute centred around maritime boundaries and drilling rights.

Neighbours and NATO allies Greece and Turkey have been locked for weeks in a tense standoff in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey is prospecting the seabed for energy reserves in an area Greece claims as its own continental shelf.

Ankara says it has every right to prospect there and accuses Greece of trying to grab an unfair share of maritime resources.

Stoltenberg announced Thursday that the two sides had agreed to start "technical talks" to reduce the risks of military "incidents and accidents."

But Athens quickly denied any such agreement, saying Turkey must first withdraw its ships from the area where it is carrying out gas and oil prospecting. Ankara said it backed Stoltenberg's initiative for military and technical talks and called on Greece to do the same.

On Friday, the NATO chief said Greek, Turkish and allied military officers had begun talks aimed at ensuring that some of the standoffs between the two countries' armed forces in the Mediterranean don't break out into open conflict. NATO officials said the first talks were held Thursday.

"As long as we have so many ships in the eastern Mediterranean, we believe that there is a need to have technical talks on how to develop enhanced mechanisms for deconfliction," Stoltenberg told reporters. "No agreement has been reached yet, but the talks have started."

While it's relatively rare for NATO to have to step in to reduce tensions between member nations, the military alliance has helped set up similar systems in the past, including communications hotlines for use in case of emergencies.

Stoltenberg underlined that the military-level talks are only aimed at avoiding any incident between Greece and Turkey and are very distinct from the diplomatic efforts to find a long-term solution to the standoff.

"These are technical talks rather than negotiations on the underlying dispute between Greece and Turkey and as such they are meant to complement, not replace, the efforts led by Germany for political mediation toward de-escalation," he said.

History of disputes

Since Turkey dispatched a vessel accompanied by warships to do exploratory research in the disputed area, Greece's armed forces have been placed on alert. Both countries sent warships to the area and carried out live-fire exercises between the islands of Crete and Cyprus and Turkey's southern coast.

Simulated dogfights between Greek and Turkish fighter pilots have multiplied over the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. A Turkish and a Greek frigate collided last month, reportedly causing minor damage to the Turkish frigate but no injuries.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks to the media in Ankara on Friday, where he expressed disappointment at Greece's rebuttal of NATO over technical talks to prevent incidents in the Mediterranean. (Turkish Foreign Ministry/Reuters)

The current crisis is the most serious in the two countries' relations in decades. The neighbours have come to the brink of war three times since the mid-1970s, including once over maritime resources in the Aegean Sea.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias's meeting with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will focus on "issues of international and regional interest, with an emphasis on current developments in the eastern Mediterranean and the Cyprus issue, as well as the role of the UN," the Greek Foreign Ministry said.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Dendias would be delivering a letter from him to Guterres detailing what he said was Turkey's illegal activity in the region.

Turkey links issue to refugee deal

Speaking with China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi in Athens, Mitsotakis said Greece faces aggression from Turkey and "actions that dispute every rule of the UN charter, with a rhetoric that distorts history and changes geography, undermining legality and with actions that are endangering security in the entire Mediterranean."

Mitsotakis said Friday that Greece supports good neighbourly relations, and he noted that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he is open to dialogue.

"And to this I reply with six clear words: The provocations stop, the dialogue starts," Mitsotakis said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu meanwhile accused Greece of "lying" about the NATO initiative, saying Stoltenberg had consulted with Ankara and Athens — and both agreed to the technical talks — before making his announcement.

"Greece has refuted the NATO secretary general," Cavusoglu told reporters. "But it isn't the NATO secretary general who is lying, it's Greece itself who is lying … Greece has once again shown that it does not favour a dialogue."

Meanwhile, the spokesperson for Turkey's ruling party, Omer Celik, said the European Union could no longer count on Turkey's co-operation in stemming the flow of migrants and refugees to Europe if it goes ahead with plans to sanction Turkey over its exploration operations in the eastern Mediterranean.

"I don't expect things to come to the point of sanctions. The EU should not expect co-operation on refugees after that time," Celik said in an interview with Turkey's NTV news channel.

Earlier this year, tens of thousands of migrants gathered at Turkey's border with Greece, demanding to be allowed to cross, after the Turkish president declared the borders with Europe open to migrants wanting to head into EU nations.

Possibility of Russian military exercises

On Thursday, Turkey announced the Russian naval exercises in a navigational notice that said they would take place Sept. 8-22 and Sept. 17-25 in areas where the Turkish energy exploration is being carried out. 

There was no immediate comment from Moscow on the exercises, which Turkey announced after the United States said it was partially lifting a 33-year-old arms embargo against ethnically divided Cyprus.

It's unclear why NATO-member Turkey announced such drills on Russia's behalf, but the two countries have in recent years significantly strengthened their military, political and economic ties.

Russia maintains a sizeable naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and regularly conducts naval manoeuvres there.

While Donald Trump has been silent on the conflict, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday said the U.S. president has talked to Erdogan and Mitsotakis.

"We're urging everyone to stand down, to reduce tensions and to begin to have diplomatic discussions about the conflicts that exist there in the eastern Mediterranean, the security conflicts, the energy resource conflicts, the maritime conflicts," said Pompeo.

"It is not useful to increase military tension in the region – only negative things can flow from that," Pompeo added.

With files from CBC News